Crystal blue persuasion

LE BOURGET, FRANCE - As is the case when any new concept or innovation is introduced, getting the world on board the notion of sustainable biofuels for aviation could require some further “green” persuasion.

I totally get that.

But we now have some good, solid research to back up the commitment of Boeing and the industry to finding new renewable energy sources for use in airplanes and airline operations.

My colleague, Bill Glover, managing director of Environmental Strategy for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, led a media briefing here at the Paris Air Show this week.

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Bill Glover makes a point about biofuels during Wednesday’s press briefing.

At the event, we released some positive results from a series of ground, lab and biofuel test flights involving blends of up to 50% sustainable biofuels.

What I took away from Bill’s briefing are a couple of key things. First, as proven in these tests, sustainable biofuels can perform as well as, or exceed the performance and requirements of today’s jet fuel.

And second, although commercial flights using biofuels may still be a few air shows away, there are tools available right now that we can put to work to improve environmental performance.

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If you lean toward the technical side, you might like looking over the summary of the results here in PDF. Or click the image above.

You can take a look at Bill’s presentation on our Boeing Paris Air Show 2009 Web site.

The results of the study indicate that one type of plant we’re evaluating - camelina - has a lifecycle carbon footprint that is 80% less than today’s jet fuel.

By the way, when we talk about “lifecycle” in this instance, we refer to the entire journey from growing and converting the plant source to fuel, to actually using it in a jetliner.

Biofuels have been shown to have greater energy content by mass than petroleum-based fuel, and of course unlike petroleum, they are renewable sources of energy. Plant-based sources also have the added benefit of absorbing CO2 while being grown - so with biofuel you’re starting out on the plus side of the carbon equation.

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This is the camelina plant, a member of the mustard family. The oil from its seeds is a potential source of renewable aviation biofuel.

Now, for the “what-we-can-do-right-now” aspect of the story, let’s remember we’re already making advances in air traffic management - as we’ve talked about here before.

We also have a suite of technologies available currently that can be applied to environment and energy solutions. Solar cells for power generation, for example. We’re building airplanes with materials such as composites. And we’re utilizing new aerodynamic breakthroughs and electrical systems optimization. Today, as well, we have more realistic flight simulation technology - so there’s less need for actual flying during pilot training.

These are all steps we can take right now, as we work to make sustainable biofuels a real solution for commercial aviation.

As we begin to wrap up the Paris Air Show, I hope these are some of the messages that will remain on the minds of our industry stakeholders here in Europe and elsewhere around the world.

As the song goes, “a new day is coming.”

Comments (12)

Norman (Long Beach, California, United States):

I am glad that there is interest in the search and for research for alternative fuels in the aviation community, already airlines like Air New Zealand, Continental Airlines and Virgin Atlantic has shown interest and have demonstrated the usage of plant fuels in combination with regular fuels.

Though there are still issues that need to be worked out like freezing temperatures and energy potential, these are being worked out. This is a good way to come out of the cycle of dependence from fuel from a dangerous part of the world and the rising cost of non renewable energy.

Jim Hasstedt (Everett, WA, USA):

Great information and subtle reference to Tommy James' song from 1969!
("Look over yonder what do you see
The sun is a-risin' most definitely
A new day is comin' people are changin'
Ain't it beautiful crystal blue persuasion")

The quest for economically/socially realistic renewable energy sources is looking more promising all the time, and I'm glad to work for a company that is apparently serious about pursuing this goal.

We're all in this "crystal blue" world together, and must always work toward developments that benefit us all. Keep up the good work!

Barun Majumdar (Seattle, WA, USA):

The study by Boeing released at the Paris Air Show, found that in a series of tests - including test flights by Japan Airlines, Air New Zealand and Continental Airlines - biofuel blends performed "as well or better" than traditional jet fuel made from petroleum, according to Forbes.


In the tests the fuels met key standards such as freezing point, viscosity and fuel density, Boeing said. The tests also found the blends had greater energy content by mass than regular jet fuel, meaning they could improve fuel economy.

The above excerpts are from the recent Boeing newsclip.

Thus biofuel has met or even surpassed some of the criteria like energy content and even freezing point. Now the main challenge remains in commercialization of this renewable green energy source.

Jamie Walker (Everett, Wa):

I am encouraged by our company's continued effort to explore alternate fuel potential. In addition to production of the fuel, we must recognize that land suitable to the growth of such crops is severely limited, not to mention the immense water resources required.

We must therefore, additionally explore innovations in agriculture such as skyscraper farming that can produce not 2x or 3x per unit of land but 500-1000x per unit. And it must be able to do so with less expensive waste water. These challenges CAN be overcome, but the question is, does the cost of these other necessary infrastructures make it feasible and competitive with current fuel production methods. Until this side of the equation achieves close to cost parity, it is inappropriate and not in the best business interests of our customers to consider biofuels as an alternative to carbon fuels.

Where we DO have a golden opportunity is to explore and develop the technologies to convert natural gas and coal into liquid aviation grade fuels. Not only is the technology in place, but the number of jobs this would create in the U.S. is considerably higher than that of a biofuel industry. As you may have read recently, Spain has learned the very hard lesson that "green" jobs actually generate job loss, not gain.

In closing, we all want less dependence on foreign and governmentally unstable sources. We owe to our customers and theirs to make air travel as affordable as possible. It's not an either/or argument, it MUST BE a YES/AND effort.

Blaine H. (Seattle, WA):

I have been following your blog for a long time now. You have hooked me into reading it by the way you creatively interweave songs and lyrics into your posts. For me personally, when people talk and use words or a phrase that is a song lyric or song title, the song instantly registers in my head. It appears that is the way you are wired as well. I love it!

Especially when you link the songs to Youtube videos. I don't think I have seen a Boeing executive that expresses themselves like you have done through your blog. The easy going manner in which you relate to people and share is refreshing to see in a Boeing executive. It makes me feel encouraged that there is a real person in senior leadership at Boeing, not just a talking head.

Keep up the good posting work; it's the first link I look for when I read BNN in the morning. Oh, and I have actually learned a lot about current Boeing news reading your blog too! :-)

Darrell J. Roberson (Everett, WA):

What about linseed oil from the flax plant as an aviation biofuel? has that been tried?

Michelle (Everett):

Our company should lead the way in this search for alternative fuels. The mentality of "if jets can do it, why not cars?" almost instinctively follows. What a way to show the world that our company truly is concerned about corporate citizenship and our impact on the world as a whole.

Chris C (South Africa):

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this Blog entry, and I’ve certainly learnt a great deal more about biofuels. It’s truly incredible to read that the oils from the seeds of the camelina plant, that’ll potentially make renewable aviation biofuel, has an 80% less life-cycle carbon footprint that today’s jet fuel! And indeed, while the plants grow, they’re absorbing CO2 as well during the day. This camelina mustard plant certainly makes for a ‘hot’ biofuel topic.

However, notwithstanding the clear benefits of biofuels, I have to also agree with Jamie Walker’s comment. Water preservation is also key; clean, fresh water. There’s clearly a fine line to walk here, albeit, a very positive and environmentally focused line. Also, we’re talking about growing vast plains of crops that will have their seeds harvested for biofuels, and naturally, suitable land (fertile soil) will be a limiting factor. Are there any plants, that have potential bio-fuel seeds, that grow in water, such as water-lily or reeds?

Paulo M (Johannesburg, RSA):

Very interesting piece this post..

I think Jatropha is an interesting plant in particular, because you can grow it in arid regions - according to that report. Camelina appears similar in this attribute. I think there are vast areas that might some day be growing these crops as a source for greener energy - but, I agree with previous posts here that, you'll require immense water works to support such schemes. In North Africa and the Middle East, you'd probably require setting up large-scale desalination plants.

Still, because humans don’t consume these plants, there are no food price pressures - until important agri-countries like the United States and Brazil substitute cropland for the growth of the bio plants.

Also, I see the report mentions the Fischer-Tropsch process and South African petro-chemicals giant SASOL. SASOL's coal-to-liquid plant in Secunda is the world's single largest source of carbon dioxide - the plant is the largest synthetic fuels facility on the planet (Wikipedia).

So while the bio-fuels mentioned in the report appear cleaner than the stuff pumped out of the ground, you still get a lot of carbon dioxide in the production of the fuels. Perhaps something all those Ph.D.'s there can figure out.

It appears that these fuels still require much work and thought. Otherwise you have a situation like Canada's Alberta 'oil-sands' - very large-scale opening mining of high sulphur content oils that requires immense energy to convert into usable fuels.

As it stands, bio-fuel looks like an economic alternative to naturally forming crude that looks set to be depleted in my lifetime - well thought out as not to be in competition with humans for food, but not there yet on the production/environment side - although the end product fuel is pretty clean.

Sowmyan (Bangalore):

I have been interested in tracking the world's readiness to tackle the impact of fossil fuel depletion. I hear that fossil fuel will run out in 50 years and that production / yield from existing wells already peaked in 2007. The prices will go up astronomically before they get exhausted.

I have been wondering how aviation would cope with this. Terrestrial travel can bank on electricity generated from solar, wind and atomic energy plants. Aviation will perhaps be the worst affected.

I think it is not carbon foot print, but sheer availability. How much of cultivable land is required to grow bio fuel to meet the current need? Jamie Walker mentioned above that multistoreyed farms may be required as infrastructure. But we may need solar energy too.

I expect aviation industry to have been concerned with this and thought through many aspects. Pls let me have some leads to where I can find published articles on this subject.

Haldane Dodd (Geneva, Switzerland):

Another source of information for everyone in the industry and people with an interest in how the aviation sector is progressing with cleaner fuels, is "The Beginner's Guide to Aviation Biofuels", released at the Paris Air Show and free to download on www.enviro.aero/biofuels.

It is a very handy reference to the current state of the industry's progress on the issue and was produced with the help of Boeing's environment team.

Haldane Dodd
Air Transport Action Group, Geneva

Rich Wooldridge (Everett Washington):

I am also excited to see progress in Bio Fuels. I however feel that with water resources the way they are and property an issue we really should be looking into Ocean Dwelling plants for Bio Fuel. Just think about what it would be like to replace or convert every Oil Rig with/into a Bio Fuel Structure.

We have already taken great steps in proving out Tidal Power so I would think we should look at all other possibilities our Oceans have to offer.

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